|Platform(s)||Atari 8-bit, Atari 2600, Atari 5200, Atari ST|
|Genre(s)||Space combat simulator|
Star Raiders is a space combat simulator video game that was written by Doug Neubauer and published in 1980 by Atari, Inc. for the Atari 400/800 computers. The player assumes the role of a starship pilot who is fighting Zylon forces while managing their ship's energy and systems and protecting friendly starbases. Starflight and combat are shown in the 3D cockpit view with a 2D galactic map showing the status of the Zylon invasion. The television series Battlestar Galactica, the film Star Wars (1977), and the 1971 mainframe game Star Trek influenced Neubauer, who began developing Star Raiders in his non-working time at Atari. Star Raiders was later ported to the Atari 2600, Atari 5200, and Atari ST.
Matt Barton and Bill Loguidice of Gamasutra called Star Raiders one of the best-known games for Atari's 400 and 800 computers. It influenced space combat games such as Elite (1984) and Wing Commander (1990), a sequel named Star Raiders II, and a 2011 remake. Star Raiders was included in a list of ten games that were submitted as a game canon to the Library of Congress in 2007.
Plot and gameplay
Star Raiders is a Space combat simulator set during a galactic war between the Atarian Federation and the Zylon Empire. The player assumes the role of the captain of Elite Atarian Starship fleet and combat the Zylons before they eliminate humanity. To win, the player must destroy the Zylon ships before they destroy the Atarian ship or before their ships runs out of energy. Star Raiders is controlled using both a keyboard and a joystick. It is primarily experienced from a first-person, 3D cockpit view and larger, 2D map overviews for long-distance travel. The player can control the speed of travel in space, and the angle of display (rear and front-views), and engage a mini-display called the Attack Computer Display that displays the coordinates of enemy ships and other targets. In action sequences, the player will sometimes avoid or destroy asteroids before they damage their starship, while battling enemy ships using photon torpedoes. In this mode, The control panel displays the player's velocity, energy, and both the number of kills and remaining targets. Energy is consumed by traversing space, using shields, and firing photon torpedoes, while energy can be restored by matching coordinates with a friendly starbase.
A long-range scanner changes the game's display, allowing the player a top-down view of their ship and flashing squares indicate targets' locations. When the long-range scan is damaged, the player will see the objects in the area and false reflections of them. The player can also view a galactic chart, indicating the player's location, enemy ships, and friendly star bases. To navigate through sectors on the chart, the player must engage the hyper-warp to navigate there. A subspace radio delivers messages through the galactic chart such as whether star bases are surrounded or destroyed. Six different types of equipment can be damaged in action, which is tracked using the acronym PESCLR (for photon torpedoes, engines, computer, long-range scan, and radio). Damaged equipment will effect gameplay, such as slower movement due to damaged engines.
Star Raiders' skill levels are Novice, Pilot, Warrior, and Commander. On high-difficulty levels, during hyperwarp moments, players must manually navigate their ship using crosshairs while warping. Zylon ships will move faster and strike more deliberately, with less randomness in their attack algorithm.
Previously working as an electrical engineer, Doug Neubauer created Star Raiders. While working at National Semiconductor, Neubauer programmed scenes with star backgrounds. National canceled its home-computer projects and many employees, including Neubauer, moved to Atari, where console head Richard Simone hired him. Neubauer became a key figure in the development of the POKEY sound chip, used in the Atari 400 and 800 computers. Using the sound chip he created, Neubauer tried to emulate the sound effects such as explosions, engines, and photon torpedoes from the original Star Trek.
During a period of downtime of his hardware design duties, Neubauer worked under the supervision of Jay Miner who allowed Neubauer to create software which led to early development of Star Raiders. He stated he "just did [Star Raiders] for fun" and that "Atari was pretty laid back [...] I think Star Raiders, along with other early games, helped in finding any bugs in the Atari 400/800 chips". Development began in early 1979, with Neubauer finishing the game after eight to ten months.
Neubauer was inspired to make the game after discovering the text-based game Star Trek (1971). He said that it "just didn't look that interesting to play", but liked the idea of the galactic chart within the game. Neubauer wanted to create something that resembled 3D space combat for the system, and was inspired by science-fiction films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), THX 1138 (1971) and Star Wars (1977). He also cited the television series Battlestar Galactica (1978) as influences, specifically for the name of the Zylon enemies. Other game visuals such as the 3D cockpit point of view and the hyper warp were influenced by Star Trek and Star Wars.
Neubauer asked fellow employees if they had algorithms for 3D motion, which nobody did, leading to him "wasting a few weeks" trying to figure out the equations without using sine and cosine, which he achieved using pen and paper. After figuring out an algorithm for 3D motion, Neubauer said creating a star field and explosions for the game was "pretty simple", and described his code for it as "crummy 16-bit multiplier code" that slowed down the game during the explosions. Neubauer did not know how to use the graphics capabilities of the Atari 800 computer, and could only make the screen display two enemies at once. Neubauer initially designed the hyper warp system to involve calculations inspired by Isaac Asimov's The Stars, Like Dust (1951), but decided to abandon it as "a dumb idea in terms of gameplay for an action game." The way enemies attacked star bases was also changed during development because Neubauer's algorithm would sometimes make them adhere to the map while approaching star bases. This led him to add random variations to their paths to stop them adhering to the map. Due to the limited memory in the ROM cartridge, Neubauer also abandoned a feature that would allow players to dock at star bases.
At the end of Star Raiders, the player is ranked using humorous titles such as "Galactic Cook", "Garbage Scow Captain" and "Star Commander (Class 1)". Neubauer did not want a number-score system and instead applied a military ranking with humorous ratings to poorly performing players. When Neubauer finished the first draft of the game, he was 900 bytes over the eight kilobyte limit. One week before the game was to be ported to ROM cartridges, Neubauer was adjusting the difficulty of the game to earn certain rankings. He stated the game had "a lot of ugly spaghetti code" so Star Raiders could run on less-expensive Atari 400 computers and fit on an eight-kilobyte cartridge. 
Star Raiders was released in March 1980. Neubauer was not directly involved in the creation of either the Atari 2600 or Atari ST versions of Star Raiders. The Atari 2600 version of the game was released in September 1982. The Atari 2600 release included an eight-button touch pad and a DC Comics book.
The Atari 5200 version of the game was released in January 1983. This version of the game was the first game to make use of all 12 buttons on the system's gamepad. The Atari 2600 version of the game was re-released in various compilation formats, such as the Atari 80 in One for Windows in 2003 and the Atari Anthology for PlayStation 2 and Xbox in 2004. The Atari 5200 version was included as part of the Atari 50: The Anniversary Celebration (2022) compilation for Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Steam, and Xbox One. This port of the game included additional content such as overlays that show player status and rumble effects when entering hyperspace.
Joretta Klepfer of Compute! said the game is "incredibly exciting to play and just about as much fun to watch", praising the 3D effects of the gameplay, and the use of color and sound. Klepfer noted the game is not intuitive and requires players to read the manual before playing. David C. Cole of InfoWorld said the game is "graphically rich" and noted its addictive qualities, allowing two children to play it for a few minutes that "turned into six hours!" Cole noted difficulty in the game, stating in more-difficult modes if the ship is damaged it is nearly impossible to locate a base for repairs. In the January 1982 issue of Softline, a reviewer noted how different the game is to other contemporaneous Atari computer games, stating among the few games made for the system, they were usually just bigger or brighter versions of games made for the Atari 2600 with the exception of Star Raiders. The review concluded; "the game stands repeat play well and remains quite difficult". Henry Allen echoed the praise in The Washington Post, saying Star Raiders is like "the best possible combination of a shooting gallery and a planetarium", and that in comparison to popular contemporaneous arcade games, is "the harder stuff", referring to the games complexity.
Greg Williams of Byte said in 1981; "no one – I repeat, no one – has created either a home-computer game or a coin-operated video game that is better than Star Raiders"." The review praised the games color, sound and controls while stating "the feature that gives it life is its real-time animation", noting its three-dimensional star field and hyper-space movement. Williams concluded; "to all software vendors, this is the game you have to surpass to get our attention". In Electronic Games, Bill Kunkel and Frank Laney found the game similar to previous Star Trek-styled games but said; "it is far superior to all past efforts in this field" and is the game that "best demonstrates the outstanding videogame and computer capabilities of 6502-based machines". In the March 1983 issue of Softline, the results of a readers poll of the best programs for Atari computers ranked Star Raiders number one on the list with 45% more ballots than the second-place contender Jawbreaker (1981).
From contemporaneous reviews of the game's ports, The Video Game Update said the Atari 2600 version was unable to duplicate the quality of the home-computer releases but said the version "has done a very good job of transitions" and that the game had become "a classic space game". According to Tim Onosko of The Capital Times, the Atari 2600 version is poorly made with inadequate graphics, stating Activisions Starmaster is superior. The Video Game Update later reviewed the Atari 5200 version of Star Raiders, finding it to be essentially the same as the original home-computer game, and calling it an "extremely complicated game" that is also "extremely sophisticated" and "unquestionably one of the best space games in existence. No fan of first-person space games should be without this one." Jack Schofield of The Guardian gave a negative review to the Atari ST version, stating the improved graphics do not make Star Raiders a better game and that the original is "still a brilliant game."
Star Raiders was included in GameSpot's series "The Great Games of All Time"; writer Jeff Gerstmann stated the game has a level of complexity that is usually only found within text adventures of the era and that it launched the space simulation genre. In 1995, Flux magazine ranked the original computer version of Star Raiders 46th on its list of "Top 100 Video Games".
From retrospective reviews of the game ports, Mike Bevan of Retro Gamer referred to the Atari 2600 version as a "rather weak port" with a smaller galactic chart. The game was more expensive than the average Atari 2600 game because it included a touch-screen pad controller. Jeff Gerstmann of GameSpot stated the Atari 2600 version "was pretty good on its own, but one look at the Atari 400/800 version of the game was all it took to sour someone on the Atari 2600 version forever". A 16-bit version of Star Raiders was released for the Atari ST computers; according to Bevan, the controls feel "floaty", the graphics are not very good, and the game runs more slowly than the original.
In 2007, Henry Lowood, the curator of the History of Science and Technology Collections at Stanford University, created a project to preserve video games. Lolwood submitted a list of games to the Library of Congress through a committee that included himself, game designers Warren Spector and Steve Meretzky, Matteo Bittanti, and Joystiq journalist Christopher Grant. Star Raiders was included in their initial game canon of ten submitted video games.
Matt Barton and Bill Loguidice of Gamasutra stated Star Raiders prompted several clones following its release. These include Phaser Patrol and Starmaster for the Atari 2600, Space Spartans for Intellivision, and Sentinel and Codename MAT for the Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum, respectively. Schofield stated in 1986 Codename Mat and Sentinel were the better attempts. According to Barton and Loguidice, Star Raiders established many conventions that would be part of the space simulation genre that would rise with later games such as Elite (1984) and Wing Commander (1990).
Barton and Loguidice described Star Raiders is one of the best-known games for Atari's 400 and 800 computers. Neubauer made no profit from the game because Atari did not grant royalties to its developers. Neubauer left the company but later did contract work for it. The game remained popular throughout the 1980s; when in 1987 the magazine The Computer Entertainer polled its readers on their all time-favorite computer and video games. Star Raiders was placed 14th. The popularity of Star Raiders had negative side effects for the Atari home-computer line, which was intended to seriously compete with other home computers and not to be considered a game machine like the Atari 2600. When asked about the popularity of the game in 1986, Neubauer said: "It's pretty amazing, the way the game caught on. I think it was the first game to combine action with a strategy screen, and, luckily, the concept worked out pretty well." Neubauer also said the game "looks pretty primitive" by 1986 standards.
Atari later released Star Raiders II for several systems without Neubauer's input because he was no longer working at Atari as a full-time employee. Bevan wrote in Retro Gamer fans of Star Raiders sometimes considered Neubauer's 1986 Atari 2600 game Solaris to be the "true successor" to the original game. Neubauer said Solaris was not a sequel, and that he was fonder of Star Raiders, which he said has better gameplay, that he preferred that game's explosion graphics and cockpit view.
A new version of Star Raiders was announced in 2010 and was developed by California-based Incinerator Studios. On the game's release in 2011, it received "generally unfavorable reviews" according to Metacritic. Carolyn Petit of GameSpot compared the new version of game to the original, stating the original game is complex and ambitious with a sense of humor while the new version "possesses none of the ambition or fun of its namesake".
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